By John Reuwer, September 20, 2019
This past winter and spring I had the privilege to serve as an “International Protection Officer” in South Sudan for 4 months with the Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP), one of the largest organizations in the world practicing methods of unarmed protection for civilians in areas of violent conflict. Having been part of volunteer “peace teams” doing similar work in a variety of settings over the past decades, I was interested to see how these professionals were applying what they have learned from sixteen years of experience and regular consultations with other groups using similar ideas. While I will save comments and analysis about the groundbreaking work of the NP for another time, I want to comment here on what I learned about war and peacemaking from the people of South Sudan, particularly as it applies to the goal of World BEYOND War – the elimination of war as an instrument of politics, and the creation of a just and sustainable peace. In particular I want to contrast the views of war I often hear as an American, and those of most people I encountered in South Sudan.
World BEYOND War was founded and is run (so far) mostly by folks in the United States, who for various reasons see war as an altogether unnecessary cause of human suffering. This view puts us at odds with many of our fellow citizens who labor under the myths we know so well – that war is some combination of inevitable, necessary, just, and even beneficial. Living in the United States, there is evidence to believe those myths that are so deeply embedded in our educational system. War seems inevitable because our nation has been at war for 223 of 240 years since its independence, and freshmen in my college class know the US has been at war continuously since before they were born. War seems necessary because mainstream media constantly reports threats from Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, or some terrorist group or another. War seems just because, sure enough, leaders of all the above enemies kill or imprison some of their opposition, and without our willingness to fight war, we are told any of them could become the next Hitler bent on world domination. War seems beneficial because it is given credit for our not actually being invaded by another military since 1814 (the attack on Pearl Harbor was never part of an invasion). Furthermore, not only does the war industry produce many jobs, joining the military is one of the few ways that a kid can get through college without debt – through an ROTC program, agreeing to fight, or at least train to fight wars.
In light of this evidence, even endless war makes sense at some level, and thus we live in a nation with a military budget far larger than all its perceived enemies combined, and which exports more weapons, stations more soldiers, and intervenes in other nations with military action far and away more than any other nation on earth. War to many Americans is a glorious adventure where our brave young men and women defend our nation, and by implication, all that is good in the world.
This unexamined story holds well for many Americans because we have not suffered widespread devastation from war on our soil since our own civil war in 1865. Except for the relatively small number of individuals and families personally affected by the physical and psychological trauma of combat, few Americans have a clue about what war actually means. When those of us who don’t buy the myths protest war, even to the point of civil disobedience, we are easily written off, patronized as beneficiaries of freedom won by war.
The South Sudanese people, on the other hand, are experts on the effects of war as it really is. Like the US, their country has been at war far more often than not in the 63 years since its parent country Sudan became independent of Britain in 1956, and the south became independent from Sudan in 2011. Unlike the US, however, these wars have been fought in their own cities and villages, killing and displacing a mind-boggling percentage of people, and destroying homes and businesses on an enormous scale. The result is one of greatest humanitarian disasters in contemporary times. Over one-third of the population is displaced, and three-quarters of its citizens are dependent on international humanitarian relief for food and other essentials, while the illiteracy rates are said to be the highest in the world. There is almost no infrastructure for common utilities. Without functioning pipes and water treatment, most drinking water is delivered by truck. Less than half the population has access to any safe water source. Many people showed me the green murky puddles or ponds they bathed in and imbibed. Electricity for those wealthy enough to have it is generated by individual or multiple diesel generators. There are few paved roads, a nuisance in dry season but deadly problem in rainy season when they are dangerous or impassable. Farmers are too poor to plant crops, or too afraid that the killing will resume, so most of the food for the county must be imported.
Almost everyone I met could show me their bullet wound or other scar, tell me about seeing their husband killed or their wife raped in front of them, their young sons abducted into the army or rebel forces, or how they watched their village burn while they ran in terror from gunfire. The percentage of people suffering some sort of trauma is exceedingly high. Many expressed hopelessness about starting over after losing their loved ones and most of their possessions to a military attack. A elderly Imam with whom we collaborated on a workshop on reconciliation began his comments, “I was born in war, I have lived my whole life in war, I am sick of war, I don’t want to die in war. That is why I am here.”
How do they see the American myths about war? They see no benefit – only the destruction, fear, loneliness, and privation it brings. Most would not call war necessary, for they see no one except a very few at the top gaining from it. They might call war just, but only in the retributive sense, to bring misery to the other side in retaliation for the misery visited upon them. Yet even with that desire for “justice”, many folks seemed to know that revenge only makes things worse. Many of the people I talked to about it did consider war inevitable; in the sense they did not know another way to deal with the cruelty of others. Not unexpected because they have known nothing else.
So it was quite the pleasure to see how eager people were to hear that war might not be inevitable. They flocked to workshops put on by the Nonviolent Peaceforce, whose purpose was to facilitate and encourage people to discover their personal and collective power to avoid harm under the rubric of “Unarmed Civilian Protection”. NP has a large inventory of “protection tools” and skills that it shares over time through many encounters with appropriate groups. These skills are built on the premise that the greatest level of safety is achieved through caring relationships within one’s own community and reaching out to the potential harmful “other”. Specific skills include situational awareness, rumor control, early warning/early response, protective accompaniment, and proactive engagement of tribal leaders, politicians, and armed actors on all sides. Each community engagement builds capacity based on these and the strength and skills already inherent in these communities that have survived hell.
Crowds seeking alternatives to war were even larger when NP (whose staff is half nationals and half internationals by design) joined indigenous peacemakers taking risks to spread the know-how of peacemaking. In Western Equatoria State, a group of pastors, both Christian and Muslim, volunteer their time to reach out to anyone requesting help with conflict. Most notable was their willingness to engage soldiers remaining in the bush (undeveloped rural areas), who are caught between a rock and a hard place. During the current interim peace agreement, they want to return to their villages, but are unwelcome because of the atrocities they have committed against their own people. Yet if they stay in the bush, they have minimal material support, and so rob and loot, making travel through the countryside very dangerous. They are also susceptible to being called back to war at the whim of their commander should he become unhappy with the peace process. These pastors risk the ire of both the soldiers and the communities by getting them to talk and often reconcile. As far as I could see, their selfless concern for peace has made them the most trusted group in that region of the country.
Protests and public actions are dicier for the South Sudanese. During my time in Western Equatoria State, the Sudanese people in Khartoum, through months of street protests involving millions of people, led to the initially nonviolent overthrow of their 30-year dictator Omar al-Bashir. The president of South Sudan immediately issued a warning that if the people in Juba were to attempt such a thing, it would be a shame to have so many young people die, as he called his personal army brigade into the national stadium and set up new checkpoints throughout the capital.
My time with the South Sudanese reinforced my belief that the world needs a break from war. They need relief from immediate misery and fear, and hope that peace can be permanent. We in the US need relief from the blowback spawned by supporting war in so many places – refugees and terrorism, lack of resources for affordable health care, clean water, education, improving infrastructure, environmental degradation, and the burden of debt. Both our cultures could be served by the widespread and unrelenting message that war is not a force of nature, but a creation of human beings, and therefore can be ended by human beings. WBWs approach, based on this understanding, calls for demilitarizing security, managing conflict nonviolently, and creating a culture of peace where education and the economy are based on meeting human needs rather than preparations for war. This broad approach seems equally valid for both the US and its allies, and South Sudan and its neighbors, but the particulars of its application will need to be adapted by local activists.
For Americans, it means things like moving money from war preparations to more life-serving projects, closing our hundreds of overseas bases, and ending the sale of weapons to other nations. For the South Sudanese, who are acutely aware that all of their military hardware and bullets come from elsewhere, must decide for themselves how to begin, perhaps by focusing on unarmed protection, trauma healing, and reconciliation to decrease dependence on violence. While Americans and other westerners may use public protest to criticize their governments, the South Sudanese have to be very careful, subtle and dispersed in their actions.
The gift that the people of South Sudan and other countries suffering from prolonged wars could bring to the World Beyond War table is a more accurate understanding of war by sharing stories from their personal experience. Their experience of the reality of war could help awaken powerful nations from the illusions so prevalent in the U.S. To do this, they will need encouragement, some material support and engagement in mutual learning. One way to begin this process would be forming chapters in South Sudan and other places with ongoing violent conflict who can adapt the WBW approach to their unique circumstances, then having cross-cultural exchanges, conferences, presentations, and consultations on the best ways to learn from and support one another in our goal of abolishing war.
John Reuwer is a member of World BEYOND War’s Board of Directors.